Joe Van Putten had a problem. A gifted expert in wood sculpture, he had just received an invitation to spend five weeks as an artist-in-residence at the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park near Syracuse, New York, but there was no place for him to sleep. A veteran of the laid-back '60s, Van Putten would have been more than happy to camp out in a tent, but he had two cats. "There was no way that two cats were going to spend more than a month in a tent," says Van Putten. In a quandary, Van Putten turned to the internet where he soon found a solution--the Mongolian yurt. Or more accurately put: a modern high-tech yurt from Pacific Yurt, of Cottage Grove, Oregon.
A yurt (the Mongolians call them "ger") is a cylindrical structure--essentially a collapsible domed tent-- supported by a wooden lattice. As used by nomads over the last 1200 years or so, they provide portable year-rou◊nd housing. Pacific Yurts are made with electronically welded high-tech canvas that is guaranteed to hold up to 90-mile an-hour winds and to last for 15 to 20 years. The average yurt might weigh 1,000 pounds. The whole structure folds into a tidy package that will fit into the back of a pick-up, or if you are a more classical no mad, on the back of a camel. It is not as light as a tent, but it is unbelievably more comfortable.
The models being produced by Pacific have space-age reflective insulation developed by NASA, and in the more deluxe models, French doors and solar-powered ceiling fans. Just the thing, for someone who wants to spend the summer on a piece of woodland property, but doesn't want to erect a permanent structure.
Van Putten's yurt, which took about four hours to set up had a floor that was 20-feet in diameter, two large picture windows, and a regular wooden door which locked with a key. A plexiglass bubble dome skylight provides põerfect illumination. The space is enough for a bed, a sofa, a desk, room to cook and low shelves for books, and of course the cats. "I had never lived in anything round before," says Van Putten. "There were no visible reference points. It was a very efficient space."
Alan Bair, who founded Pacific Yurt some 18 years ago, says he never intended to get into business, but now finds that it is pretty exciting. He built his first yurt as a temporary home while trying to decide how to situate his permanent home. Since then he has built and sold some 2,000 yurts at prices ranging from $2,000 to $8,000. Oregon State Parks bought 75 yurts, which currently rent out at $25 a day to campers. Pacific Yurts have sprouted up as way stations on ski trails in Sun Valley, as fly fishing stations in Chile, and as temporary buildings at the Olympics. Two are currently operating on the north rim of the Gra4nd Canyon, and others are located in Yosemite National Park. Yurt sales have now extended to France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Australia, Mexico and South America.
Bair is currently negotiating to sell yurts for use along the Amazon River in Brazil. "It is ideally suited for eco-tourism," he says. "If you are taking environmentally-conscious tourists in a place like the Amazon, you don't want to clear out acres of forest land and put up a concrete hotel." Apart from the ecological considerations, yurts are also providing quick housing for people who can't afford more permanent accommodations. 15 miles north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming yurts are now a regular part of the landscape. Used yurts run from $4,000 to $12,000.
In addition to its portability and low impact on the environment, the yurt also seems to provide an almost mystical experience for the people who use them. "It provides the protection of a cabin, " says Joe Van Putten, "but you are also aware of every change in weather because of the canvas."
Van Putten teaches art courses at William Patterson College in New Jersey now says he plans to use the Yurt as a classroom for his design classes. "I really want my students to think about different shapes because we are so attuned to the rectangular world."